Three Books About Animal Cognition

Animals, specifically non-human animals, can be endlessly interesting. From the smallest bumblebee to the biggest whale, all animals have their own specific environment and behavior. How can ants coordinate so perfectly? Why do apes share habits with us? How do elephants form relationships within and between groups? And why are pigs so smart and playful?

In this post I want to focus on books that discuss animal cognition. The Oxford dictionary defines cognition as ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.’ Too often, animal behavior is explained solely through instinct, because anthropomorphizing is a big taboo both in research and everyday life. Even so, science has found more and more evidence that many animal species can feel emotions, solve problems rationally, form close relationships, act on memory, among other things. It’s time to learn more about that!


Cover of 'The Inner World of Farm Animals' with a sheep


The Inner World of Farm Animals

The Inner World of Farm Animals is written by Amy Hatkoff, has a foreword by Jane Goodall and an afterword by Wayne Pacelle. If you want to read something that is interesting, but not too scientific or heavy, then this is the book for you. Every chapter discusses a certain farm animal, along with many wonderful pictures. I have read this book several times, mainly because the pictures are so cute! Farm animals suffer greatly because humans consider them resources instead of living being with a right to exist on their own terms. This book teaches the reader a lot about what farm animals can do, and what they are like when they’re not confined to cages. Did you know that chickens learn their chicks which foods are edible? Or that geese are monogamous, and mourn when their partner passes away? Or did you know that cows form friendships, but that they can hold a grudge too? The book also contains resources, recommended books and a bibliography. There’s always more to learn, and so little time…


Cover of 'Are We Smart Enough' with a cheetah


Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

This book is written by Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethologist who currently lives and works in the US. The answer to the title is a simple one: no, not really. At least not yet. Generally, humans see themselves as the smartest animals on earth. The intelligence of animals is measured in comparison to that: can this animal use tools like we do, or can they solve a puzzle, have they developed language? Even though many of the skills we thought made humans unique appear in at least one other animal species, it is still a limited view on the abilities of animals. Many species have fantastic skills that are simply not relevant for humans, and the other way around. De Waal’s book covers this topic and explores the intelligence of animals without placing them on a ladder leading up to human’s cognition. It’s a fascinating text, and I wish it were ten times longer because I never get tired from this subject.


Cover of 'Animal Sadness' with a passive dog


Animal Madness

Animal Madness, written by Laurel Braitman, is a book all about the mental health of animals, especially pets. This book surprised me so much. I thought it would be about animals having difficulties with for example captivity in zoos, but it’s so much more than that. I have never lived with a dog or a cat, so I had no idea that they could develop such a variety of mental health problems. Nor did I know that there are psychological therapies for these problems. Or psychotropic drugs, often the same ones that humans get prescribed! Braitman opens this book with her own struggles with her very anxious dog Oliver, who has a lot of phobias, and slowly gets broader with her research. It’s a sad but very interesting read.


Cover of 'The Genius of Birds' with a blue bird


What’s next?

There are so many more species I’d like to learn more about. On my to-read list is The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman, a book about the intellect and skills of birds. Also on there is What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe. I’ve always been curious about the experiences of fish, especially after I read that they can consciously experience pain and other discomforts. I have yet to find some good books on insect behavior, so if you know of any: feel free to let me know. 🙂

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